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The Ghost in MIT
March 31, 2014 6:24 AM   Subscribe

The inside story of MIT and Aaron Swartz. The Boston Globe reviews over 7,000 pages of discovery documents in the Aaron Swartz case (previously): Most vividly, the e-mails underscore the dissonant instincts the university grappled with. There was the eagerness of some MIT employees to help investigators and prosecutors with the case, and then there was, by contrast, the glacial pace of the institution’s early reaction to the intruder’s provocation.... MIT never encouraged Swartz’s prosecution, and once told his prosecutor they had no interest in jail time. However, e-mails illustrate how MIT energetically assisted authorities in capturing him and gathering evidence — even prodding JSTOR to get answers for prosecutors more quickly — before a subpoena had been issued.... Yet if MIT eventually adopted a relatively hard line on Swartz, the university had also helped to make his misdeeds possible, the Globe review found. Numerous e-mails make it clear that the unusually easy access to the campus computer network, which Swartz took advantage of, had long been a concern to some of the university’s information technology staff.
posted by Cash4Lead (53 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
the problems with this article come right out in the pull-quotes:
Most vividly, the e-mails underscore the dissonant instincts the university grappled with. There was the eagerness of some MIT employees to help investigators and prosecutors with the case, and then there was, by contrast, the glacial pace of the institution’s early reaction to the intruder’s provocation.

MIT, for example, knew for 2½ months which campus building the downloader had operated out of before anyone searched it for him or his laptop — even as the university told JSTOR they had no way to identify the interloper.

And once Swartz was unmasked, the ambivalence continued. MIT never encouraged Swartz’s prosecution, and once told his prosecutor they had no interest in jail time. However, e-mails illustrate how MIT energetically assisted authorities in capturing him and gathering evidence — even prodding JSTOR to get answers for prosecutors more quickly — before a subpoena had been issued.
the journalist apprently neither knows nor cares enough about how MIT works or how the criminal justice system works to suss out the contradictions here resulting in the usual mass-media muddle: opinions differ at MIT on whether Swartz is a l334 h4x0r terrorist or not.

but it sounds, Stallman save us, like MIT has an active IT fascist brigade.... nasty dirty users must be protected for their own good.
posted by ennui.bz at 7:14 AM on March 31 [2 favorites]


I'd say they come right out even earlier
MIT has insisted it maintained an appropriate, even compassionate, neutrality toward a determined hacker who stole 4.8 million articles and eluded numerous efforts to stop him before the college sought help from police.
Downloaded, not stole. To what extent Swartz's activities may have caused difficulties with bandwidth for MIT or JSTOR I don't know; it's possible he caused some real issues in the short term and might have impeded other users' ability to use the resource. But in no other way did what he did result in an unlawful taking that deprived others of the items he was copying.

I normally don't think this is a distinction worth hassling about, but when we're talking about journal articles that may be freely distributable and a dead young man then maybe we should parse that more closely.
posted by phearlez at 7:52 AM on March 31 [24 favorites]


From the article, it seems like MIT's response was frankly half-assed until JSTOR finally cut them off enough times that they actually shifted themselves to look for the source if the problem. The idea that they were "neutral" is obviously a farce. But their real fuck up was in not putting on more of a dog-and-pony show to demonstrate that they weren't on the side of The Man, man. Poor PR management there.

But in the end, it still seems clear to me that the bulk of the blame for the debacle goes at the feet of the Feds and Ortiz, who heard a number followed by millions and were convinced they could spin this as a case of snagging a L337 haX0r and decided to throw the book at him.
posted by Diablevert at 8:02 AM on March 31 [4 favorites]


the Feds and Ortiz, who heard a number followed by millions and were convinced they could spin this as a case of snagging a L337 haX0r

I think their past experience of Swartz makes it not a case of snagging _a_ hacker but a very specific one.
posted by phearlez at 8:05 AM on March 31 [2 favorites]


It does seem like that to me. My gut reaction is that I want Ortiz and anyone else connected with the prosecution decisions to spend the rest of their work lives isolated from any chance of harming anyone else in a similar way.
posted by lodurr at 8:16 AM on March 31 [9 favorites]


the journalist apprently neither knows nor cares enough about how MIT works or how the criminal justice system works to suss out the contradictions here resulting in the usual mass-media muddle: opinions differ at MIT on whether Swartz is a l334 h4x0r terrorist or not.

It seems like you are suggesting that the conclusion here is lazy journalism. Best I can tell, opinions do, in fact, differ at MIT on Swartz.
posted by maryr at 8:32 AM on March 31


A good rule of thumb regarding Aaron Swarz stories is this: if the writer uses pervasive descriptions of MIT wanting this or that, or MIT doing this or that, instead of the MIT Legal department saying this, or IT workers at MIT doing that, then it's a lazy story.

MIT is not a monolith. And lik many large institutions, MIT has a legal department staffed by lawyers from th outside who do not have a long rooted connection to the institute, and often get a profoundly mistaken idea of where the institution's interests lie.

[Disclosure: I'm an alum, a former staffer, and sometime campus hanger on]
posted by ocschwar at 8:37 AM on March 31 [13 favorites]


"Downloaded, not stole. To what extent Swartz's activities may have caused difficulties with bandwidth for MIT or JSTOR I don't know; it's possible he caused some real issues in the short term and might have impeded other users' ability to use the resource. But in no other way did what he did result in an unlawful taking that deprived others of the items he was copying."
Words like theft do have precious little relevance to issues of copyright, but that doesn't mean they aren't serious and it doesn't justify what Swartz was at lest trying to do. If he had actually succeeded at downloading all of the scientific archives that MIT has access to through JSTOR and sharing them in some kind of distributed file available freely to everyone he would have broken JSTOR and irreparably damaged the best way we have to pay for preserving, accessing, and interacting with the old literature. JSTOR is not evil and they aren't fucking up the academic publishing industry, what they do is essentially just make scientific archives run just smoothly and efficiently enough that to the uninformed observer it looks tantalizingly close to something that honestly could be the free for all Swartz was trying to make.

It doesn't justify any of the absurdity, incompetence, or viciousness of his prosecution - and this really should have been treated as an academic or at most civil matter rather than a criminal one - but this kind of breach really is a very big deal.
posted by Blasdelb at 8:47 AM on March 31 [7 favorites]



It does seem like that to me. My gut reaction is that I want Ortiz and anyone else connected with the prosecution decisions to spend the rest of their work lives isolated from any chance of harming anyone else in a similar way.


There is a big problem with the Massachusetts democratic machine, which is that it sees prosecutorial positions as stepping stones for people with electoral ambitions.

And since those people are 1. seeking to build a profile and 2. seeking to prove that they're not liberal pansies but liberal something else, every once in a while, they perp walk somebody for the crime of doing something strange on a slow news day and throw the book at him.

So, if you live in MA, for God's sake vote in the primaries and vote for democrats who aren't going this route. For governor, there's Kayyem this year. Same platform as Coakely, but Kayyem's hands are clean. Coakely was not.

(Oh, and for Attorney General, just vote for the republican. They're under no pressure to prove themselves, and so they just do their damned job.)
posted by ocschwar at 8:52 AM on March 31


Downloaded, not stole. To what extent Swartz's activities may have caused difficulties with bandwidth for MIT or JSTOR I don't know; it's possible he caused some real issues in the short term and might have impeded other users' ability to use the resource. But in no other way did what he did result in an unlawful taking that deprived others of the items he was copying.

At the very least, he violated the terms of use for JSTOR which could have blocked service for all users at MIT for a longer or shorter period of time (I haven't done the reading to see if JSTOR blocked service at any time or for how long if they did). I have had to deal with such service blockages in the past, and they are an annoying time sink for the usually overworked staff to address. While you are tracing the violating users and turning off their library access (so you can assure the vendor you've dealt with that particular problem), all the other users on campus are deprived of access to a tool which may be critical for their work. Note that Swartz was not affiliated with MIT at that time, so he was endangering other peoples' access to material they had paid for to make his political point. This is not a case of "oh he just downloaded some files" -- there were real costs in peoples' time, if nothing else.

Does that mean I think he should have been prosecuted the way he was? No. But asserting that he should not have been apprehended at all is not a great answer, either.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:55 AM on March 31 [2 favorites]


People mad someone from their particular subgroup was prosecuted for crimes he did not deny committing. Film at 11.

Lawrence Lessing summarized the issue as "I'm right, therefore I'm right to nuke you."

MIT was right. Aaron was wrong. But there are different ways to be wrong:

Wrong as in mistaken.
Wrong as in rude.
Wrong as in undisciplined.
Wrong as in unethical.
Wrong as in should-be-sued.
Wrong as in criminal.
Wrong as in felonious.

Aaron Swarz was rude (as in he caused MIT workers serious inconvenience, and persisted after knowing that measures were being taken to stop what he was doing.)

He was unethical (as in he enlisted all of MIT into his battle over paywalled scholarly papers, taking away MIT's autonomy to decide which stance to take.)

He was criminal in that he broke the letter of the CFAA, but that is meaningless. Farting with a smartphone in hand is a breach of the CFAA. We've all broken the CFAA. The decision to prosecute him was motivated by Ortiz's ambition to be a tech law precedent setter, not the merits of the case. And sysadmins are right to be outraged and troubled by this debacle.
posted by ocschwar at 9:10 AM on March 31 [8 favorites]


People mad someone from their particular subgroup was prosecuted for crimes he did not deny committing. Film at 11.

Practicing lawyer uncritically defends the current state of the field which pays the bills. Film at 11, pending copyright litigation.

This is of course an equally unfair and reductive response, but there does seem to be a tendency for legal practitioners to discuss "the way things are" here as if they're self-evidently good, as if no other process could be better, and as if any coherent ethical system that does not coincide with the mainstream American legal practices is a prior wrong.

What is the argument for the aggressive protection of copyright where academic research, often conducted with at least partial public funding, is concerned? What is the argument that Carmen Ortiz properly exercised prosecutorial discretion in seeking such large penalties against Swartz? What is the argument that copyright law and the penalties associated with it, as well as the application of laws related to wire fraud, are ethically defensible or socially positive things?

Any of these might open up a conversation rather than shutting it down. It may not make everyone agree, but at least it might produce a real exchange.
posted by kewb at 9:21 AM on March 31 [4 favorites]


I'll add that I see a few people like Blasedlb and GenjiandProust have done this sort of work in the thread, so yay!
posted by kewb at 9:23 AM on March 31


For those that are interested in the minutiae of academic publishing, there's a decent rebuttal about common complaints about JSTOR in this blog post. My major problem with JSTOR is that it's a good idea that doesn't go anywhere near far enough---but that's not JSTOR's fault.

JSTOR is expensive, but mostly only in comparison to things like PubMed and arXiv.org, which no one sees the bills for. It's not expensive when you compare it to subscriptions to SceinceDirect or the Nature publishing group costs, especially on a per journal basis.
posted by bonehead at 9:39 AM on March 31 [3 favorites]


A good rule of thumb regarding Aaron Swarz stories is this: if the writer uses pervasive descriptions of MIT wanting this or that, or MIT doing this or that, instead of the MIT Legal department saying this, or IT workers at MIT doing that, then it's a lazy story.

MIT is not a monolith. And lik many large institutions, MIT has a legal department staffed by lawyers from th outside who do not have a long rooted connection to the institute, and often get a profoundly mistaken idea of where the institution's interests lie.


This seems like sophistry to me. Menotomy is a Greek word, because using the name of a group to stand for the disparate members of that group is an ancient practice, and saying "MIT claimed to be neutral in the dispute" is no different from "the Church in the Middle Ages believed in transubstantiation." Digging up some 12th century priest or other who did not believe in transubstantiation does not make the phrase false.

And, for goodness sake, the university employs the lawyers, not the other way round, yes? If MIT's administration had felt that cooperating with police in the prosecution of Scwartz was morally wrong, it could have had it's lawyers advise it how best to stay within the law while resisting cooperation, issued statements of protest, and taken a variety of other symbolic actions. Saying, "well, some of us professors thought it was a bad move" doesn't absolve MIT-the-institution of its culpability, any more than the fact an abolitionist movement existed wipes away the stain of slavery from the United States-the-country.
posted by Diablevert at 9:56 AM on March 31 [2 favorites]


I believe that the journal, as it currently exists, is doomed; it makes increasingly less sense as technology develops, and I feel personally that scholarly research should be available to all as a function of the scholarly mission and its relationship to society.

However, there are significant problems and costs in moving toward that goal, and it does not represent the situation as it exists today. At the moment, we are tangled in a complex legal and financial web, and moving beyond that is taking a lot of thought, time, effort, and care (there are worse systems than the one we have). While I am sorry for Swartz's prosecution and suicide, I don't think anything he did helped with the situation.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:04 AM on March 31 [1 favorite]



This seems like sophistry to me.


Sophistry to expect journalists to provide a full picture of what happened rather than being lazy?

Menotomy is a Greek word, because using the name of a group to stand for the disparate members of that group is an ancient practice.

And in some cases that's fine. But when you're referring to an academic institution that has suffered the slipping of control from the faculty to a class of administrators, and is now the site of a slow struggle over control of such things, saying "MIT did X" is lazy.


And, for goodness sake, the university employs the lawyers, not the other way round, yes?


The university administrators hire the lawyers. The rest of MIT has little authority over them or even knowledge of their decisions.
posted by ocschwar at 10:08 AM on March 31 [1 favorite]


...what [JSTOR does] is essentially just make scientific archives run just smoothly and efficiently enough that to the uninformed observer it looks tantalizingly close to something that honestly could be the free for all Swartz was trying to make.

In fact, I think there's room for reasonable people to disagree here. JSTOR is good at what it does, puting articles at the disposal of employees of big institutions. JSTOR does not serve independent scholars, freelance journalists or unaffiliated members of the general public very well. They have made some moves in that direction with a foot in the door in 2011, and a bit more in 2013, but at best, it's an ongoing process.

It's worth remembering that Swartz's activity was in 2010, a year before this new rush to openness in JSTOR started.
posted by bonehead at 10:12 AM on March 31 [4 favorites]



I believe that the journal, as it currently exists, is doomed; it makes increasingly less sense as technology develops, and I feel personally that scholarly research should be available to all as a function of the scholarly mission and its relationship to society.


Google Scholar could make all the world's scholarly research available to everyone, at a cost of bandwidth and storage that's below rounding error for their budget. In fact, that is basically what they do, and Cthulhu knows every time I'm on the hunt for scholarly papers, I wind up starting there and then using other Google resources to figure out how to get past various paywalls.

BUT.....

Google Scholar is not, and cannot be an archivist of record. When you use them to find a PDF, you trust that it is an accurate copy of what the editors accepted for publication when they did. Google offers you no such assurance, however. In fact, they disclaim it. And that is a non-trivial issue.

The scientific journals offer important information about the safety and efficacy of drugs and technological methods. Interested parties often try to influence the output of these journals. And sometimes operate fake scientific journals for the same purpose.

And humanities journals include law reviews, which have influence over our Anglo Saxon common law system. If interested parties could modify law review papers retrospectively, they might.

That's why you need archives of record for these journals, such as JSTOR. And these archive sites have bills to pay.
posted by ocschwar at 10:17 AM on March 31 [2 favorites]


MIT is not a monolith. And lik many large institutions, MIT has a legal department staffed by lawyers from th outside who do not have a long rooted connection to the institute, and often get a profoundly mistaken idea of where the institution's interests lie.

Sure, that's true, but the problem goes far deeper. Aaron's father wrote repeatedly and met with the President, Chancellor, and General Counsel. Several faculty members also wrote and met with these administrators to advocate for Aaron.

This is not a case of a legal department run amok. MIT's senior leadership knew full well what was going on here and remained committed to a bullshit position of "neutrality" in the face of repeated assertions that their position was incompatible with the Institute's culture and values.
posted by zachlipton at 10:17 AM on March 31


It's also worth noting that Google Scholar just isn't very good compared to the for-pay commercial publisher's databases (including non-profits like JSTOR). There's not enough content on the web, and it's not comprehensive enough, for GS to work properly, IMO.
posted by bonehead at 10:20 AM on March 31 [2 favorites]


Sophistry to expect journalists to provide a full picture of what happened rather than being lazy?


In re the actual article, the journalist actually did a helluva lot of identifying particular sources of quotes and actions from within the university and JSTOR, in most cases by department or title and sometimes by name.

And in some cases that's fine. But when you're referring to an academic institution that has suffered the slipping of control from the faculty to a class of administrators, and is now the site of a slow struggle over control of such things, saying "MIT did X" is lazy.

There was a past paradise where there were no such things as deans and college presidents? Where the faculty controlled the legal department? I don't dispute that the burgeoning of the bureaucratic class within universities has diminished the relative power of the faculty. But I'd argue that that shift make the actions of those bureaucrats more emblematic of the institution, not less. If various factions who have no actual power to shape policy don't like a policy, it means nothing about whether it becomes Institution's Official Policy.
posted by Diablevert at 10:36 AM on March 31



There was a past paradise where there were no such things as deans and college presidents? Where the faculty controlled the legal department? I don't dispute that the burgeoning of the bureaucratic class within universities has diminished the relative power of the faculty.


There was a past where deans and college presidents were in large part elevated from th faculty and brought back to the faculty after a stint.

It diminished to the point that no amount of pressure on the admins from the faculty was enough to rein in MIT legal and halt what happened here. In fact, it also diminished to the point that it appears no amount of faculty outrage will get anyone in the senior administration to be held accountable. And it diminished to the point that there are books being published on the impact the handoff of universities to professional admins is having on academia.
posted by ocschwar at 10:43 AM on March 31


Open Access As The Antidote To Privatizing Knowledge And Learning
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:47 AM on March 31


Well, if it continues to degenerate and 20 years from now the faculty consists entirely of half-starved post-docs on part time hours, you still think we should poll them to get the real opinion of "MIT"? Or would you get a more accurate sense if the actions the institution is likely to take by asking the people with the power to act on behalf of the institution?

When you're affiliated with an institution larger and more powerful than you, you get both the benefits and the detriments of the affiliation, inescapably.

Anyway, we should probably take this to memail.
posted by Diablevert at 10:53 AM on March 31 [1 favorite]


There was a past paradise where there were no such things as deans and college presidents?

During my time at UC Davis, we saw a number of administration positions move from people who had been hired internally to outside administrator types. The dean who I had worked with the most was a well-loved prof of chemistry who moved into administration about fifteen years ago; he knew the institution and its people inside-out. We're seeing a heavy move towards administrators who came from either Business School X, or else serial administrators, punting around between various institutions administrative arms. It's easy to get the sense that they don't understand the history or intricacies of a particular place, and possibly care more about things looking good on their CV's than being good for the university.
posted by kaibutsu at 11:02 AM on March 31 [3 favorites]


Yeah google scholar kinda blows for social sciences and humanities.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 11:17 AM on March 31 [1 favorite]


ennui.bz: "opinions differ at MIT on whether Swartz is a l334 h4x0r terrorist or not.

maryr: It seems like you are suggesting that the conclusion here is lazy journalism. Best I can tell, opinions do, in fact, differ at MIT on Swartz.
"

That's exactly what ennui.bz said, so I'm not sure what you're disputing.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:42 AM on March 31


It's also worth noting that Google Scholar just isn't very good compared to the for-pay commercial publisher's databases (including non-profits like JSTOR). There's not enough content on the web, and it's not comprehensive enough, for GS to work properly, IMO.

Google Scholar is not Google web search. It indexes articles that are available from Springer, JSTOR, and other pay-for-content databases. The providers either allow Google to spider their sites, or provide Google with a content feed. The articles themselves are still behind the paywall, but you can find them with Google Scholar, and so it is, actually, fairly useful for finding things, but you don't get full access.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 11:42 AM on March 31


Google Scholar is not Google web search. It indexes articles that are available from Springer, JSTOR, and other pay-for-content databases. The providers either allow Google to spider their sites, or provide Google with a content feed. The articles themselves are still behind the paywall, but you can find them with Google Scholar, and so it is, actually, fairly useful for finding things, but you don't get full access.

If you are doing serious scholarship, you need a proper index (or, more likely, proper indexes). Google Scholar is fine for fairly erratic trawling of the recent literature, but it's best used as an adjunct to the better tools in your field. If you're doing chemistry, for example, you'd better be using SciFinder Scholar. CAS is pretty annoying as a vendor, but it is a very complete tool, and Google Scholar is nowhere near matching its search functionality, nor will it ever get there, unless Google is able to turn Scholar into a major revenue stream.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:02 PM on March 31


This is my experience too: GS is nowhere near as good or as flexible in search options as Scopus. In fact, it seems to prioritize web content over journal content, in my limited experience, which tends to skew the results quite a bit.
posted by bonehead at 12:11 PM on March 31 [1 favorite]


It makes me sad that MIT, which has a culture of individuals routing around institutional rules (the Orange Tour, Dome Hacks, and so on), also has a culture that leads to incidents like this).
posted by zippy at 12:41 PM on March 31


Unauthorized access to computer networks and resources at an organization he had no ties to? Yes.

Purposefully evading blocks set up on those networks to regain access? Yes.

Victim of completely entirely overzealous prosecutors who only wanted to "nail the hax0r" and make a name for themselves with an overblown media circus? Yes.

I have no sympathy for Swartz as any sort of hero or champion of information freedom; I only feel sorry for him that his actions (while stupid and inexcusable) put him in the crosshairs of prosecutors who wanted to make him into an example.
posted by mrbill at 1:11 PM on March 31


Google Scholar is fine for fairly erratic trawling of the recent literature

If all scholarly journals were public domain, there would nothing encumbering Google from being the best index for them. And GS would fill that niche in short order.

But Google would still not stand behind the literature they serve and be the responsible archivist for it.
So there would still be a need for things like JSTOR, and there would still be a need for entities like JSTOR to find a way to pay their bills.
posted by ocschwar at 2:10 PM on March 31


If all scholarly journals were public domain, there would nothing encumbering Google from being the best index for them. And GS would fill that niche in short order.

The power of periodical indexes is their indexing and the flexibility and power of their search options. Google Scholar is stuck with keyword searching, which will never match the power of a dedicated index. Even if all the scholarly literature in the world was up on the web, conveniently formatted for Google to do magic on, Google Scholar would still be a poor relation compared to the dedicated indexes. Really, it's never going to do a tenth of the things that something like SciFinder Scholar can do because Google is never going to spend the money on it, and there is no reason why they should. Google Scholar works entirely well for what it is; don't try to make it take on more than that.

I'm less worried about access than finding. With a solid citation, one can usually get almost any periodical article in a couple of weeks through InterLibrary Loan. If you can't find the thing, access is irrelevant. So, even in a world with 100% open access, we will still need robust finding aids -- and they will be worth every penny they cost.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:20 PM on March 31 [1 favorite]


Blasdelb: Words like theft do have precious little relevance to issues of copyright, but that doesn't mean they aren't serious and it doesn't justify what Swartz was at lest trying to do. If he had actually succeeded at downloading all of the scientific archives that MIT has access to through JSTOR and sharing them in some kind of distributed file available freely to everyone he would have broken JSTOR and irreparably damaged the best way we have to pay for preserving, accessing, and interacting with the old literature. JSTOR is not evil and they aren't fucking up the academic publishing industry, what they do is essentially just make scientific archives run just smoothly and efficiently enough that to the uninformed observer it looks tantalizingly close to something that honestly could be the free for all Swartz was trying to make.

It doesn't justify any of the absurdity, incompetence, or viciousness of his prosecution - and this really should have been treated as an academic or at most civil matter rather than a criminal one - but this kind of breach really is a very big deal.


I left the whole quote here because you seem to think the scope of the offense is relevant to calling it theft/not-theft (which it is not) but it does happen to prove my point: it's not necessary to call Swartz's actions theft in order to make a case that his actions are wrong. One can actually describe the real consequences of his goals, as you have done above, and deal with the resulting fallout from other people disagreeing with whether those results actually justify police actions and criminal charges.

If you really do think that this should have been handled in an academic or civil manner then you can help contribute to that as a future goal by not playing along with calling it theft. I am not going to take to the barricades on this when it comes to Jay-Z and Dangermouse but when it comes to getting the public behind using prosecutorial resources and tax dollars to imprison someone the language matters.

GenjiandProust: At the very least, he violated the terms of use for JSTOR which could have blocked service for all users at MIT for a longer or shorter period of time (I haven't done the reading to see if JSTOR blocked service at any time or for how long if they did).

Let me tell you my position, which I suspect echos that of a vast percentage of the population: It would take a damned miracle for me to give less of a shit about the terms of use JSTOR attaches to their product. Ditto that of Netflix or Hertz Rent-a-Car or anyone else on the planet who writes agreements between themselves and a consumer.

The fact that JSTOR inked a contract with MIT that didn't mandate some sort of use of authentication via Shibboleth or OAuth is their problem, not mine, and the fact that any quantity of my tax dollars were spent going after someone for a contractual violation burns my ass. The fact that JSTOR lacked the technical competence to cope with this - including an apparent several weeks to set up authenticated access systems according to the article (which just defies belief if they already do this with other consumers of their product) doesn't motivate me to great pity either.

The article and people above keep describing JSTOR as a non-profit, and if I was God Emperor of the language this would be the first description struck from the lexicon for describing companies that aren't directly in the business of charitable distribution of funds. Non-profits can still charge unreasonable fees and pay their executives obnoxiously well. Non-profit doesn't mean no profit to anyone nor does it mean we should be so enamored of their continued existence that we as a society foot the bill for policing their business.

Shit, we're already paying them. Why are we doing their contract enforcement too?

And at any point where there were outages, that's the scope of the issue we were dealing with: Swartz's later runs at their database were so slowed down that it took them weeks to notice. Outages were a result of deliberate action on their part to cope with a setup that didn't protect their fiefdom as well as they'd like. As presumably was the case with their contract with MIT as well, given that it took so long for more action to be taken. If their contract was suitably written they could have demanded MIT add authentication or take more action to find the perpetrator. Instead there was various thumb-twiddling.

Note that Swartz was not affiliated with MIT at that time, so he was endangering other peoples' access to material they had paid for to make his political point. This is not a case of "oh he just downloaded some files" -- there were real costs in peoples' time, if nothing else.

The article makes it clear that Swartz was using a guest account so clearly MIT had configured their shit such that it allowed JSTOR access to guests. And again, as mentioned above, the endangering of other people's access was all through JSTOR & MIT's actions by shutting things down to add restrictions. JSTOR as a business is entitled to do such things (or maybe they are - I don't know what their contract with MIT allows for) but Swartz's direct actions weren't impeding anyone's access.

If you want to attach some responsibility to him for creating a secondary chilling effect, perhaps. I'm not sure I am willing to hang that exclusively around his neck - he was far from the only person out there believing there should be better access to these sorts of documents. But that's a cultural thing as well and JSTOR likely can point a finger at Google and other online free resources driving people's attitudes about whether they're worth $75k a year for access to their shit.

And if I were them you can be sure I'd be interested in keeping people saying "steal," as if it deprived others of access the way it would "if they had lost an equivalent number of books from their library overnight" rather than someone just making a lot of photocopies of stuff they make their money controlling access to.
posted by phearlez at 2:39 PM on March 31 [7 favorites]



The fact that JSTOR inked a contract with MIT that didn't mandate some sort of use of authentication via Shibboleth or OAuth is their problem, not mine, and the fact that any quantity of my tax dollars were spent going after someone for a contractual violation burns my ass. The fact that JSTOR lacked the technical competence to cope with this - including an apparent several weeks to set up authenticated access systems according to the article (which just defies belief if they already do this with other consumers of their product) doesn't motivate me to great pity either.


JSTOR never wanted your pity. JSTOR wanted MIT to put a stop to the scripted downloading of their corpus of papers. And that was done.
posted by ocschwar at 2:47 PM on March 31 [5 favorites]


"It would take a damned miracle for me to give less of a shit about the terms of use JSTOR attaches to their product."
I give a shit, I actually give quite a bit of a shit, and I'd like to share why.

I work in bacteriophage biology, which was hot shit in the fifties and sixties when phage biologists like Max Delbrück, Jim Watson, Salvador Luria, and Alfred Hershey collected their Nobels before their students went on to found molecular genetics, molecular biology in general, protein biochemistry and bioengineering but as their graduate students went into these new fields they left their professors to mostly retire in the 70s. This means that, though the discipline was largely reborn twenty years ago, a significant amount of the research on the cutting edge was done in the 60s. I absolutely rely on my ability to access the old literature, and because of how wretchedly terrible the situation already is, I've seen sizable work duplicated, work straight up stolen from the 70s in one case, and have myself spent months laying the groundwork for something I wanted to do before just two papers (that were both nearly impossible to find and then impossible to acquire having never been digitized until I begged someone halfway around the world to do it) told me everything I needed. Hell, a lot of the old work is just better, better in every way.* The fact that I come from a lab that is run by someone who was a grad student in the 60s makes me a lot more valuable than it should because I have had access to what is essentially an oral tradition of who did what when that young researchers can't find written down anywhere.** The situation is already fucking awful, and problems of open access are really only a small piece of whats actually important.

I give a shit because what Swartz was trying to do was a direct threat to a vital global resource that I rely on to do my job. Fuck the terms of use itself, but what those terms mean and the violated trust inherent to them are inherent to JSTOR being able to exist, and JSTOR is really fucking important. A library of books that do not get read might as well be ashes, and to get read by those who need to read them scientific articles really do need to be digitized in central repositories. For digital central repositories of scientific journals to exist they must respect the copyrights of their owners, and respecting those rights while making the repositories useful to users requires exactly the trust Swartz pissed on. You can quibble all you like about how the infrastructure made it easy for Swartz to start this shitty thing he was trying to do, but it is still deeply fucking awful. If he had succeeded at downloading all of the articles he wanted and he had shared them like he wanted to he would have done something ultimately far worse than just petty theft.

*There are also techniques from back then that are largely lost, most for good reasons (2D TLC is a special kind of hell), but a lot is gone because people just didn't have someone to learn them from.

**If you want a fun exercise see if you can find one of the most seminal studies on phage therapy done in Tblisi after WWII using phage against dysentery on more than 30,000 children where they used one side of a street as a control for the other side. A beautiful study, it found a 3.8 fold reduction in dysentery incidence in the treated group and convinced the Soviet Union of phage efficacy, leading to its adoption as a standard of care. I'll be impressed if you can tell me what language its in but if anyone here can show me a PDF of it I'll mail the intrepid paper hunter a prize.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:46 PM on March 31 [8 favorites]


Is it Babalova, E. G., Katsitadze, K. T., Sakvaredidze, L. A. & 10 other authors (1968). Preventive value of dried dysentery bacteriophage. Zh Mikrobiol Epidemiol Immunobiol 2, 143–145? Because interlibrary loan should be able to get you a PDF (at least, that's what happens when I interlibrary loan articles).
posted by hoyland at 4:36 PM on March 31


That was my guess the last time this came up, but nope.
posted by The Tensor at 4:43 PM on March 31 [1 favorite]


It's a good thing I'm wrong, as that was seriously 30 seconds on Google. But I guess I'm a bit confused what the point is. If the original study is in German (which it might be; I think the article we found is in German (though PubMed says Russian) or someone goofed their bibliography), it was presumably in a journal that circulated outside the Soviet Union and probably is findable. (Obviously, this may also be the case if it's in Russian.) If it's some ultra-obscure journal that circulated only in the Soviet Union, then perhaps not.
posted by hoyland at 5:18 PM on March 31


You can quibble all you like about how the infrastructure made it easy

I don't think it's a quibble to take issue with an organization that collects sizable use fees in exchange for writing poor contracts and doing sub-par IT work turning around and off-loading the expense of dealing with bad actors onto the taxpayer. That's before we even address the question of whether the way JSTOR exists is necessarily the way it should/could exist (a discussion that was had quite well & comprehensively some time back here which I don't have a personal interest in revisiting) and whether it should be our expense to prop up their existence model.

I don't like it when corporations dump tertiary expenses off onto taxpayers by pollution and I don't like it here. You make a good case for JSTOR's services being necessary and I don't dispute that they serve a need. I just don't see it as my obligation to support them both in indirect payments via my university education & tax contributions that go to the university system AND provide them with a contract enforcement arm via DOJ.
posted by phearlez at 6:49 PM on March 31 [1 favorite]


I give a shit because what Swartz was trying to do was a direct threat to a vital global resource that I rely on to do my job.

Do you really think university libraries would drop their contracts with JSTOR and start BTing the dump? I mean what was the direct threat to the continued existence of JSTOR?
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 7:52 PM on March 31 [1 favorite]


"His father, Bob Swartz, believes that MIT’s lack of compassion helped destroy his son’s life."

Losing Aaron: After his son was arrested for downloading files at MIT, Bob Swartz did everything in his power to save him. He couldn’t. Now he wants the institute to own up to its part in Aaron’s death.
posted by homunculus at 9:59 PM on March 31


He was unethical (as in he enlisted all of MIT into his battle over paywalled scholarly papers, taking away MIT's autonomy to decide which stance to take.)

This is not how ethics works. In this case, not at all hard to invert the argument. In general, ethics may be dialectical, or undecidable, and so on.
posted by polymodus at 12:16 AM on April 1 [1 favorite]


This is not how ethics works.

The ethics books I've read generally devote some paragraphs to the importance of letting your peers retain their autonomy on decisions that pertain to them.
posted by ocschwar at 10:27 AM on April 1 [1 favorite]



Do you really think university libraries would drop their contracts with JSTOR and start BTing the dump?


The concern was that individual journals would withdraw from JSTOR.
posted by ocschwar at 10:32 AM on April 1


The concern was that individual journals would withdraw from JSTOR.

Executive summary: that feels a lot like FUD to me.

Longer: Because... what? I mean, it could have happened certainly - I have no opinion on that. Depending on their interests perhaps they'd have been right to do so, and Swartz's actions would have been a part of that.

But if there would have been reason, valid or not, for journals to withdraw from JSTOR because Swartz took the entire document set and released a dump then I would have to think it would be related to the fact that they couldn't trust JSTOR to control access to their materials. Which is simply a fact regardless of Swartz's actions.

JSTOR wrote a contract with MIT that allowed them to provide access to anyone on their network of the loosest affiliation (anyone who comes onto the campus and identifies themselves) with no consumption limits. There's some anti-scraping promises, it seems, but they're accomplished in a fairly toothless way. It was the very ham-fisted way that Swartz did this that got him caught; reading the documents the Globe shares it's not clear to me that they'd ever have caught someone on the MIT campus who set out to grab the store over a 6 month period.

The ethical question of Swartz or anyone else is largely besides the point if the question is confidence in JSTOR. They clearly were not being very good stewards of the data they were managing (maybe? I don't know what the contracts they have with the journals looks like, though they clearly allow for pretty generous distribution). If a comprehensive dump of all their contents up to date X represents a failure in some way to do right by the journals then they have failed them and had failed them long before Swartz. Their very method of operation did not and could not stop the documents they share from then being distributed to others.

I mean, I just opened my JSTOR connection via my remote login to my former employer (with who I am theoretically on the books to do hourly contracting for, even if that never happens). Opening up the browse by journal I picked "Asia Minor" at random because everything in their catalog is still under copyright (as opposed to the pre-1900 stuff JSTOR has). They have all of 23 volumes and publish twice a year. I could save these by hand over the course of an hour.

If the journals expect tighter control than some bozo staff member being able to grab their whole publication history then they're not getting it. But I'm not sure I think they really expect they are. JSTOR's moving wall keeps the collection from stepping on their new publication subscriptions. "In rare instances, a publisher has elected to have a "zero" moving wall, so their current issues are available in JSTOR shortly after publication." Scanning down the journal list it seems like 3 is the average, but I wouldn't lay bets on it.

I don't think the journals are at all unaware of how leaky a sieve this system is and I'm skeptical that slightly larger holes would cause them to run.
posted by phearlez at 12:37 PM on April 1 [1 favorite]


"Executive summary: that feels a lot like FUD to me."
What your illustration of how vulnerable to abuse journal access systems are is lacking, in addition to a working knowledge of how their information security systems work, is an argument justifying that abuse. Being concerned about violations of the trust that underpins academic communities like JSTOR is not at all like spreading doubts about tobacco oncology.
posted by Blasdelb at 1:18 PM on April 1 [1 favorite]


Opening with a slight at my comprehension without any supporting evidence bolsters little other than your coming across kinda jerky.
posted by phearlez at 2:50 PM on April 1


Being concerned about violations of the trust that underpins academic communities like JSTOR

First, you have to argue that JSTOR is an academic community and I'm not sure that's clear cut. It says it 'serves the academic community', whatever that means, but it's not necessarily of the academic community. The relationship with JSTOR is a little less contentious than with Springer or Elsevier because JSTOR is at least nominally a non-profit (but then so is ETS).

(Contrast your wish for someone to email you a PDF of that article with the page JSTOR inserts at the front of PDFs with your IP address and a notice about accepting the terms and conditions. Heck, contrast it with the dialogue box about terms and conditions you have to click through to download a PDF. I'm guessing (though I'll admit to not having read it) those terms and conditions include not emailing the article to someone.)
posted by hoyland at 4:38 PM on April 1


The ethics books I've read generally devote some paragraphs to the importance of letting your peers retain their autonomy on decisions that pertain to them.

As well they should. But discussion of ethics in a classroom or philosophical setting often omits discussion of power relations, such as those in place with regard to JSTOR, MIT, and Aaron Swartz. JSTOR's autonomy is quantitatively different from mine -- to a degree that's at a minimum damn near qualitative, to loosely paraphrase Stalin.
posted by lodurr at 7:34 AM on April 3


Booking Video: Aaron Swartz Jokes, Jousts With Cops After MIT Bust
posted by homunculus at 10:18 AM on April 11


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